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Could Scotland solve England’s water crisis?

Written by Dominic O'Neill

England is heading towards a water supply crisis. This week the head of England’s Environment Agency has reported that due to climate change and an increasing population, England is set to run out of water in 25 years.  Only rapid and fairly radical action to increase reservoir stocks, improve infrastructure, decrease leakage and business usage could avoid water shortages. 

England’s South East faces the most significant risk, currently considered to be under serious ‘water stress’ with the highest population levels but low levels of water supply. Climate change will result in hotter and drier summers reducing England’s water supply by between 10%-15%. Those who think it can’t be that bad should listen to the Chief Executive of the Environmental Agency who recently stated that England is “staring into the jaws of death”, as demand outstrips supply.

English water companies are struggling to increase supply not just due to lack of year-round rainfall. It’s estimated that water leaks alone account for enough water to supply 20 million people every day. England’s privatised water companies have pledged to reduce water leakage by 50% by 2050. However, this target seems unattainable as Thames Water was fined over £120 million in 2018 for failing to tackle leaks, and a further 8 water companies have failed to meet targets for reducing leakage.

Increasing water extraction from rivers and lakes has a deeply negative effect as unsustainable abstraction comes at a severe environmental cost.

Desalination plants have been suggested, where undrinkable sea-water is converted into drinkable water by removing salts and other byproducts. A single desalination plant can cost over £1bn to construct with extremely high running costs due to the energy they require, making an investment in such plants unsustainable.

Is it time then to start thinking outside the box? A solution that hasn’t been mentioned, is Scotland.

Scotland, in simple terms, is a water-rich nation whereas England is not. Loch Ness, one of Scotland’s 27,000 freshwater lochs, contains more water than all rivers and lakes in England and Wales combined.  Scotland also possesses more than 125,000km of rivers to boost its supply.  Overall, Scotland’s rivers, lochs, ponds and canals contain over 90% of freshwater in the UK.

It’s estimated that Scotland’s supply is 100 times higher than what is actually used. As a result of this abundance of water, abstraction levels are much lower than the rest of the UK, meaning the majority of Scotland’s water sources are in good condition and environmentally sustainable.

David Weight of AECOM, an international engineering company, has suggested a radical approach to England’s water issues. The core of this idea is the creation of a ‘Natural Grid’, a canal system running from the Scottish borders all the way to the South-East of England. This would allow for the transfer of water from Scotland’s rich supply to England’s water-stressed areas. They estimate that the creation of this infrastructure would cost roughly between £12 billion to £20 billion. While this seems like a huge level of investment, the other options could prove to be equally as costly and be less sustainable.

The Chief Executive of the Environmental Agency stated that in order to combat England’s water shortages water usage would have to be cut by a third, half of all leaking pipes would need to be fixed, huge new reservoirs and water treatment plants would be required. Water companies are already struggling to reduce leakage and even if the targets were met this still may not be enough. The creation of new reservoirs would be hugely costly and difficult to create, especially in the areas they are needed most.

While the creation of the infrastructure required would be costly, it’s plausible to say the cost of not doing so to England and its economy is considerably higher.

For Scotland exporting water to England would create a brand new industry that could provide an example for the rest of the world to follow. Water is increasingly being referred to as ‘Blue Gold’ – this is something Scotland should capitalise on.

Scotland’s water company, Scottish Water, is publicly owned whilst England’s are private profit-making companies so regardless of the constitutional arrangements there would be a fee involved for Scotland’s water exports.

Currently, there is no way to put a value on bulk water exports. Turkey did agree to supply Israel with water using converted oil tankers in a deal worth more than a billion pounds a year, however the deal fell through due to political reasons.

There is no denying that in coming years water demand will increase exponentially and that shortages will become a significant geopolitical issue. Some nations are already at loggerheads due to damming of rivers in one nation for industrial reasons creating water shortages in neighbouring countries. 

With the amount of unused water Scotland has – exporting some to England would benefit both nations and provide an example for the world to follow as water becomes a highly traded commodity and provides a boost to Scotland finances. Scotland’s strength has always been in its natural resources, with 8.4% of the UK population Scotland possesses 34% of the UK’s natural wealth.  Utilising one of it’s most abundant resources for trade should now be at the forefront of policymaker minds across the UK.

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About the author

Dominic O'Neill

Dominic is an Economics graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University with a particular interest in Macroeconomics, Trade and Business Policy.


  • Scotland has all the resources it needs to expand its industry ad well as its population. It’s unfortunate for the south of England to have such a problem with water supply, but the answer isn’t to build expensive canals, the answer is to allow a natural reduction in the population in the south east and move industry and business to parts of England where the water supply isn’t a problem.

    • Yes you are right, the water shortage is caused by over population in the part of the country with the least water resources.

  • The amount of raw, untreated, water may be vast, but the amount we need to consider is the treated water and the extent to which Scotland has sufficient surplus. The hot summer enjoyed in 2018 resulted in a number of high water shortage risk areas in Scotland so more investment would be needed to help make such a concept work.

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